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Britain and the European Union have reached an agreement on new trade rules in Northern Ireland in an attempt to resolve a thorny issue that has fueled post-Brexit tensions in Europe and on the island of Ireland.
The deal could potentially resolve the issue of imports and border checks in Northern Ireland, one of the most challenging and controversial aspects of the United Kingdom’s split from the EU. Northern Ireland is part of the UK but shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.
Speaking at a press conference in Windsor, just outside London, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the new deal, called the “Windsor Framework,” will deliver “smooth flowing trade” within the UK, “protects Northern Ireland’s place” in the UK and “safeguards” the sovereignty of Northern Ireland.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the tense relations between the UK and EU since Brexit. She said that in order for the two parties to “make the most of our partnership” new solutions were needed. She pointed to the UK and EU’s cooperation on Ukraine and said that “we needed to listen to each others concerns very carefully.”
The purpose of the deal is to fix the issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, an addendum to the Brexit deal agreed by Boris Johnson and the EU in 2019. The protocol was created to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the EU, meaning goods don’t need to be checked between the Republic and the province. The Windsor Framework will replace the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The two leaders laid out three essential areas in which the new deal will improve the protocol.
Sunak said the deal will protect the flow of free trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by creating green and red lanes for goods flowing into Northern Ireland. Goods that might end up entering the Republic of Ireland will be placed in the red lane for checks before entering Northern Ireland.
Goods destined to remain in Northern Ireland will flow freely, Sunak said, meaning that “if food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, it will be available in Northern Ireland.” New rules affecting different goods – like product labeling – will be phased in at different times to make the implementation of the framework as smooth as possible.
The prime minister said that through the deal the UK and the EU have managed to protect “Northern Ireland’s place in the union” by allowing the UK government to determine VAT rates applicable in Northern Ireland, as opposed to the current system where the rates are determined by the EU. He said this would allow recent policies, such as the reform to lower the price of pints in British pubs, to now apply in Northern Ireland.
Finally, he also announced a new “Stormont brake” that would allow Northern Ireland’s devolved government to pull an “emergency brake” on any new EU laws from being imposed on the province.
“This will establish a clear process through which the democratically elected assembly can pull an emergency brake for changes to EU goods, rules that would have significant and lasting effect on everyday lives,” Sunak said.
He added that if the brake is pulled by the Northern Irish government, the Westminster government will be given a veto over the law.
The Stormont brake is likely to be the most controversial part of the deal as it raises questions over the imposition of EU law on a sovereign country. While the brake makes use of an old mechanism that exists in the Belfast Agreement, a peace deal signed in 1998 that brought peace to Northern Ireland, there is inevitably confusion about how the brake will be used.
If the Northern Ireland government pulls the brake but the British government doesn’t use its veto, there will be tension between Westminster and Northern Ireland. If one party in the Northern Irish government wants to use the brake but another doesn’t (Northern Ireland’s government must be made up of politicians from both the Unionist and Republican communities) the government in Westminster might have to effectively pick a side.
UK government officials implied in briefings on Monday that there is a certain degree of flexibility in what will happen in these circumstances. It’s clear from the noises both in London and Brussels that the deal has been negotiated in a way that assumes good faith – something that seemed impossible just a few months ago.
The announcement of the deal will also raise questions about the future of British politics. Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister, has spent recent weeks arguing that Sunak should not drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, legislation Johnson brought forward during his mandate that allowed the British government to effectively ignore parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Both Sunak and von der Leyen have made clear that this bill is now dead – possibly taking with it the political career of Johnson.
Von der Leyen arrived in the UK Monday for final talks with Sunak, ahead of a statement about the deal in the House of Commons. On Von der Leyen’s schedule was also tea with King Charles III at Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace confirmed.
Now that a deal is done, Sunak faces a potential political backlash from hardline Euroskeptics in his Conservative Party, though many prominent Brexiteers have given the deal their blessing.
Von der Leyen’s meeting with the King has proved controversial. “The King is pleased to meet any world leader if they are visiting Britain and it is the Government’s advice that he should do so,” the Palace said when it announced the sit-down.
According to a royal source, the meeting would be an opportunity for Charles to discuss topics including the war in Ukraine and climate change.
But it was criticized by some prominent unionist figures. “I cannot quite believe that No 10 would ask HM the King to become involved in the finalising of a deal as controversial as this one,” former Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster wrote in a tweet. “It’s crass and will go down very badly in NI.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol, signed with Brussels by Boris Johnson, attempted to recognize the delicate situation that Brexit created in Northern Ireland.
Ordinarily, the existence of a border between an EU member state and a non-EU nation like the UK would require infrastructure such as customs posts. But during the period of sectarian strife known as the Troubles, security posts along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became a target for paramilitary groups fighting for a united Ireland.
In theory, the Northern Ireland Protocol was intended to do away with the need for border infrastructure. It was agreed that Northern Ireland would remain within the EU’s regulatory sphere, and that goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be checked before they arrived – effectively imposing a sea border.
That enraged the pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland, who argued they were being cut off from the rest of the UK and forced closer to the Republic. Disputes about the arrangements, in part, have been a barrier to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended since 2017. The sharing of power between unionists and republicans is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement – the peace deal that marked the end of the Troubles.
The wrangling has also affected trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the extent that the UK has not fully implemented the protocol.
Without question the biggest issue in Northern Ireland at the moment is that it doesn’t have a government. The Belfast Agreement requires that Northern Ireland’s government is comprised of representatives from the the Unionist and Republican communities.
Disagreements over many things, including the protocol, caused the government to collapse, with the Democratic Unionist Party (the largest Unionist party) feeling cut off from the rest of the UK due to being in the EU’s regulatory sphere and subject to new EU law.
While this deal does make things less complicated and addresses the issue of EU laws being imposed, there will still be less friction between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland than Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
It’s also worth noting that the Stormont Brake can only work if there is a government, which could through stick rather than carrot finally restore the government in Belfast.
That depends on who you ask. Since the UK left the EU’s regulatory spare, trade between the two has been hampered. That has impacted all manner of businesses – from delays meaning retailers are unable to import fresh food in time to exporters giving up doing business in Europe due to it being too expensive.
The Bank of England has said that Brexit has made inflation worse for the UK and has discouraged inward investment.
Brexiteers, however, are quick to dismiss complaints about the economics of Brexit as being part of larger structural problems, like the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the Covid pandemic.
It’s worth noting that this deal only fixes the specific issues surrounding the unique status of Northern Ireland, but doesn’t change anything for the rest of the UK.
The EU is very happy. Brussels largely wants to stop thinking about Brexit, which has slipped quite a long way down its priority list since 2020.
Sunak will be happy for now. Prominent Brexiteers have given their approval to the deal, which was likely to be his biggest problem at home. Things might unravel as lawmakers examine the deal in closer detail, but the potential of a Conservative rebellion was the biggest risk to Sunak’s premiership taking a critical hit.
European officials are vaguely amused that the UK is still arguing about Brexit and privately point out that the UK hasn’t been able to implement its own deal – a sign that the balance of power lies firmly in Brussels. Still, the quickest way to get a European diplomat’s blood boiling is by asking a question about Brexit.
That said, this deal really has been negotiated in good faith. The flexibility the EU has shown and willingness to leave certain legal issues vague shows a dramatic improvement in trust.
The US president has said repeatedly that his priority is protecting the Belfast Agreement. This deal in theory means that the risk of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is off the cards for a while. However, that doesn’t mean tensions will evaporate, especially if the Unionist community feels hard done by.